For Fisette and Hynes, streetcar vote was painful but necessary

The mood was funereal as Arlington County Board members gathered at 3 p.m. on Nov. 18 to formally bury – at least for now – the Columbia Pike and Crystal City streetcar projects.

The fatal blow had been struck earlier in the day, when County Board Chairman Jay Fisette announced he and Vice Chairman Mary Hynes were switching sides, turning what had been a 3-2 pro-streetcar board majority into 4-1 opposition.

Neither was happy with the decision, which represents “a signal to the region that Arlington’s vision for the future has withered,” Hynes said in somber remarks from the dais.

Then why the remarkable turnabout? Hynes, who is all but assured of succeeding Fisette as board chairman in 2015, said the contentious streetcar debate was “coloring every discussion we have.”

“We have lost a consensus on how to move forward in these very unsettled times,” she said. “We have to find the way to put our community back [together].”

(Hynes may have reason to be doubly pained by her decision, as she represents Arlington on the board of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, and will have to explain it to her colleagues on that body.)

Fisette acknowledged that his decision to join Hynes in switching to the anti-streetcar position advocated by board members Libby Garvey and John Vihstadt was a reflection of the mood of the Arlington public.

“We cannot ignore the political realities,” said Fisette, acknowledging that Vihstadt’s big victory over Alan Howze – the second thumping taken by county Democrats in eight months – was as much a referendum on county-government priorities as anything else.

“This was a powerful message to the board,” Fisette said at a noon press conference.

The switch left board member Walter Tejada as the lone advocate for the streetcar on the dais. He blasted the decision as “a dramatic step backwards.”

“We have always prided ourselves here in Arlington in planning for the future,” Tejada said during lengthy comments on the dais. “Will we now become a timid and stagnant community?”

Tejada, who professed himself “incredibly and profoundly disappointed,” has viewed the streetcar project as the driver of economic development along Columbia Pike, allowing developers the incentives they need to preserve thousands of units of affordable housing.

He took a not-so-veiled shot at the change of heart of Fisette and Hynes: “I do not raise my thumb to see where the potential winds are blowing,” Tejada said.

The decision also angered Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova, who said her county was “saddened and disappointed” by the decision. Arlington and Fairfax had been partnering on the Columbia Pike streetcar project, which had been slated to run five miles from Pentagon City west to Skyline.

Bulova called the Arlington decision “shortsighted.” Fairfax had hoped to use the streetcar project as a way to jump-start redevelopment of Baileys Crossroads.

Fisette said Arlington officials would wrap up existing contracts on the streetcar project “very quickly.”

Fisette said supporters of the streetcar project had been “caught flatfooted” by the opposition. “We did not effectively make the case to our community,” he said.

But for Garvey, who had made eradication of the streetcar a single-minded focus since being elected in 2012, the change of heart by her colleagues represented “a victory for democracy.”

“We have to listen to the people we serve,” said Garvey, who on Nov. 18 vowed to press for a regional network of robust, upgraded bus service that would be a “game-changer” on transportation.

Fisette said abandonment of the streetcar projects did not mean abandonment of the residents living, and businesses operating, along the proposed routes.

“We remain committed to the vision of Crystal City, Pentagon City and Columbia Pike,” he said. “There is more exciting work to do.”

And while Hynes acknowledged ending the streetcar effort was likely to have a negative impact on the county’s economy, Fisette had a more rosy view.

“We will continue to thrive,” he said.

In the planning stage for more than a decade, the Columbia Pike streetcar project only became controversial in recent years, as the timetable slipped, costs ballooned and opposition forces – who pushed for a cheaper alternative using modern buses – gathered momentum.

The project lost its key County Board supporter when Chris Zimmerman departed for a job in the private sector in February. His resignation triggered the special election that swept Vihstadt into office as a “fusion” candidate who had backing of Republicans, Greens and disaffected Democrats, including Garvey.

The county’s Democratic leadership, which is on record supporting the streetcar project, dismissed Vihstadt’s victory in an April special election as a fluke caused by low turnout. But Vihstadt manhandled Howze in their rematch earlier this month, winning three-quarters of the precincts countywide.

Vihstadt kept his Nov. 18 public remarks to a minimum, but said voters clearly saw the streetcar as a “misplaced investment.” He said he remained committed to upgrading Columbia Pike/Crystal City/Pentagon City transit options through means other than the streetcar.

With Hynes and Tejada on the ballot next year, the decision to scrap the project may have been an act of self-preservation; had voters dumped the pair at the polls, Democrats would have lost the board majority they have held uninterrupted since the early 1980s.

The rumor mill has suggested of late that Hynes, who has served on the County Board for seven years after a dozen on the School Board, may not seek re-election. Tejada has been on the board since 2003, but some within the Democratic ranks already are working to make sure he is not renominated.

The tipping point against the streetcar’s fortunes may have come when Arlington and Fairfax officials opted to apply for federal funds, only to be turned down when the Federal Transit Administration determined – correctly, as it turned out – that the project’s cost would exceed the $250 million cap and wouldn’t be eligible for the pot of money local officials were seeking.

The delay during that period allowed anti-streetcar forces to mobilize, while neither county officials nor pro-streetcar forces could mount a successful counteroffensive.

“We clearly did not fulfill our obligation to substantiate this investment,” Tejada said.

Streetcar advocates pointed to county-commissioned studies predicting a windfall in growth and tax revenue if the transit line materialized. Critics scoffed at the estimates, and the project may have received its fatal blow with the county government’s handling of what became known as the “million-dollar bus stop” at Columbia Pike and South Walter Reed Drive.

The excessive cost of that prototype generated national and even international attention – and embarrassment – for the county. The difficult rollout of the District of Columbia’s planned streetcar network probably did not help.

Local officials also may have missed an opportunity in not sending the project to a referendum five or 10 years ago, when there was little organized opposition. While Arlington does not have the power to send advisory referendums to voters, the matter could have been sent to the electorate if tied to a bond referendum.

Present-day budget implications also appeared to play a role in the decision to scrap the projects. Rising student enrollment in Arlington threatens to crowd out other spending, both Fisette and Hynes said.

While dollars that will be saved by eliminating the streetcar can’t be transferred into education, parks or other non-transportation uses, they will be freed up for transit and road projects. And the county will not have to pick up the cost of subsidizing operational expenses of the streetcar, although expanded bus service will require subsidies.

With the Nov. 18 decision rendered, supporters of the streetcar were left to fume and regroup.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, which backed the project, trained its anger not so much on Fisette and Hynes as on “the deeply negative, and frequently inaccurate, campaign” by opponents.

“Failure to invest in modern, high-capacity transit will mean more traffic and less economic development,” the group said in a statement.

Fairfax officials, who were set to pay about 20 percent of the local cost of the project, had been apprised of the Arlington decision before it was publicly announced. Bulova, whose words did not mask what appeared to be irritation at the decision, was out with a statement as the Fisette press conference was going on.

Bulova said Fairfax would push ahead with redevelopment of Baileys Crossroads. She left open the option of “providing high-quality transit” for the corridor, but acknowledged that Fairfax could not go it alone on the streetcar project.

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